The kilogram redefined

This long-form article on Vox is a fascinating read on both why and how the kilogram was recently redefined. No longer based on a single plug of metal stored under lock, key, and guard, it will soon be based on a universal constant.

I’d recommend the article for anyone who likes geeky stuff, but here are a few things in particular that caught my eye.

1. Anyone who tattoos both the Planck constant and the motto of the metric system (“For all times, for all people”) on their arm absolutely deserves the label of Badass Scientist.

Tattoo

2. I did not know that the metric system was born in the French Revolution! 

3. Currently, the exact value of a kilogram is based on Big K, the aforementioned plug of metal housed in Sèvres, France since 1889. Since that time, it has lost approximately 50 micrograms (the mass of an eyelash), which means our kilogram standard has changed with it. Because everything in the world, every balance and scale and weighing system in any nation, is based on Big K.

4. “If Big K were stolen, our world’s system of mass measurement would be thrown into chaos.” Upon reading this, my first thought was: Oh yeah, there’s a fabulous crime thriller right there. Can someone please make that into a movie starring Cate Blanchett? Thanks.

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Down the research rabbit hole

While writing Resilience, I needed to estimate how much maintenance a shuttle might need after each hour of space flight. As a guide, I looked up maintenance requirements of US military jets and was floored.

Shuttle

Not my shuttle.

On average, a military jet needs 10-15 hours of maintenance for every hour that it flies. When the F-22 stealth fighter was approved for development, one of the requirements was that at “system maturity” (meaning 100,000 hours of flight time fleet-wide), the fighter would only require 12 direct maintenance hours for each hour of flight.

Then there’s the F-35. You might have heard of this as the most expensive military jet ever produced, which has been behind schedule (as in, two decades) and a boondoggle of epic proportions. In 2016, the most recent year I could find figures for, the F-35 required 42-50 maintenance hours per hour of flight. A ratio of 1:50 does not sound like much of a deal to me.

Upon emerging from my rabbit hole (after spending some time fascinated by the F-35 clusterfart — and take a look at the URL for that article; it’s hilarious), I decided not to specify a number for my space shuttle maintenance requirements — but I can’t imagine an advanced space exploration entity putting up with numbers like that! So all of that research work amounted to one paragraph of text in the book.

But I never consider research wasted. Here’s one thing that came out of it for me: I instantly understood what happened at Tyndall Air Force Base.

*****

When Hurricane Michael swept over the Florida panhandle, its eye passed directly over Tyndall. The base — which had been evacuated beforehand — was a total loss. Photos taken afterward showed that a number of jets had been left behind, including some F-22s.

(Detail: according to the Air Force, these jets cost $143 million each, but that’s just the construction cost. Factor in R&D and other expenses and some Pentagon insiders say the per-unit cost is closer to $350 million.)

Tyndall housed a fleet of 55 F-22s, at least 33 of which were sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio for safety. That left 22 unaccounted for. The Air Force wouldn’t admit that any of them were still on base, but the photos and conclusions soon swept over the internet. Cue fits of outrage over the idea of the Air Force simply leaving these incredibly expensive jets to be destroyed. What incompetence!

F22s Tyndall

F-22s tucked into a hangar at Tyndall Air Force Base to escape the wrath of Hurricane Michael. Photo by Staff Sergeant Matthew Lotz.

What most people (who aren’t aviation enthusiasts or science fiction writers doing research) don’t realize is that housing a fleet of 55 jets doesn’t mean that all 55 are flightworthy. Remember: 12 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time, and that’s assuming *normal* maintenance, not unexpected repairs or having to wait for parts to be shipped. In fact, an Air Force report found that in 2017, only 49% of the F-22 fleet was mission capable at any given time.

Those jets couldn’t be flown off the base. They had to be left behind, in the hopes that the hurricane wouldn’t cause billions of dollars of damage by wrecking a handful of them. (A little math fun: 22 jets at $350 million each is…$7.7 billion.)

Just a few days ago, the Dept. of Defense finally came out and said that the remaining F-22s on base will be flown out for repairs, “under their own power.”

It still wouldn’t admit how many jets had been left behind. However, the cat got out of the bag when Senator Rubio (of Florida) sent a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force, urging her to ask Congress for funds to repair all the damaged F-22s. The letter noted that “31 percent of F-22 aircraft at Tyndall Air Force Base were designated Non-Mission Capable (NMC) and were sheltered in place.”

31% of 55 equals a whopping 17 fighters left behind to survive the hurricane. Ouch.

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We’re #1! (Resilience unfolds)

Resilience was released at midnight last night, and I experienced something new and wonderful: I watched readers posting about it, time zone by time zone, as their pre-orders kicked in and the book downloaded to their e-readers.

People posted images of their devices with the book on it. They talked about waiting up to see it happen. They calculated need for sleep against work schedules and said things like “I’m already 20% in and had to make myself stop.”

 

3D RESILIENCE

 

Writing a book is a long and hard journey. Ending it this way — knowing that people in different time zones and different countries are eagerly diving in — is so incredibly rewarding that I can hardly express it.

Here’s another rewarding thing: those pre-orders meant Resilience debuted at #1 in the LGBT Science Fiction category on Amazon.

Of course, it’s not really an LGBT book — it’s straight-up mainstream sci-fi that happens to have an asexual lead and a lesbian couple, along with a whole shipload of heterosexual characters — oh, and some decidedly non-human aliens whose sexuality is really not the issue our characters are most concerned with. 

Bestseller

 

Someday, perhaps I’ll see that awesome orange “best seller” banner in a mainstream sci-fi category, but I’m very happy to see it in this one today. Readers who buy in this category are the folks I started with, many years ago. They’ve been with me on the whole journey, and are wonderfully supportive. They’re making this day a great one.

Many readers have collected themselves in a book club on Facebook, so if you’re a Facebook user and would like to hang out with curious, interesting people who have nerdy senses of humor, check out the Fletcher DeLancey Book Club. They’ll be doing a buddy read soon, with plenty of discussion that I’ll join in on. That is, once they’ve all ripped through their first read at light speed.

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Halloween = RESILIENCE

If you’ve been waiting for Resilience, the next book in the Chronicles of Alsea, I have good news: it’s available for pre-order!

You can order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple Books so far. I expect it to go up on Kobo and several others in the next day or so. The paperback edition will be available on Amazon and should go live (for pre-order) today or tomorrow.

Release day is, of course, Halloween — the perfect day to sit down and read a fast-paced tale about one alien learning to fit in with a ship’s crew, and very different aliens who aren’t trying to fit in at all.

You might want to keep the lights on.

Halloween Resilience

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Speaking as a finely tuned predator

As anyone who knows me can attest, I’ve loved using Apple computers since long before it became popular. That doesn’t mean I don’t gripe when it’s called for.

Apple prides itself on usability. Way back in the stone age, it even published a manual for developers on proper GUI (graphical user interface). It was groundbreaking at the time, and is still the standard.

Which is why I remain baffled (and griping!) that Apple abandoned parts of its own manual in 2011. That was the year it introduced OS X Lion — and what many of us not-so-fondly call the color vampire.

Lion sucked all color out of toolbars and sidebars, along with their distinctive shapes. Buttons that were formerly easy to find were now monochrome squares indistinguishable from other nearby monochrome squares, except for some tiny bit of detailing that didn’t exactly leap out.

Here’s the thing: we humans are predators. Omnivorous predators, to be specific. Our brains are finely tuned through a few gazillion years of evolution to instantly recognize a desired object (or a feared one) by color and shape.

We are not wired to examine a line of monochrome squares and quickly distinguish between them. We can do it, but there’s a time penalty, and it takes more effort.

Sidebars2

With the advent of Lion’s color vampire, many of us went searching for hacks to pour the color back in, or gave up on some Apple software and used third-party programs instead. I gave up on Finder and turned to PathFinder, which is the sidebar on the left in the above image. You can see why I’ve stuck with it for the past seven years. 

Apple’s new Mojave came out last month with a much-touted revamped Finder. I allowed myself to hope.

Well, there are many things to like in the new Finder, but customization and color are not among them. So I’ll post my gripe, a tiny note on the massive internet wall, and know that it will probably suffocate beneath the blanket of assertions that monochrome is now considered more “professional.” Pah. You can keep your professional; just give me the option to be my throwback self, the omnivorous predator wired to detect colors and shapes.

Back I go to PathFinder. Call me when Apple remembers to use its GUI manual.

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A little geeky problem-solving

Sometimes, when the world news is too much to handle, I take refuge in geeky things. Science and technology are constantly delivering up good stories and/or cool things to learn. And sometimes, it’s the tiny things that make me happiest. 

Here is a story of a tiny thing I learned. But first, the problem I was trying to solve…

As an author, I am constantly copying and pasting blocks of text from my writing program (Scrivener, long may it reign) into an email to send to a beta reader. The problem is that my book text does not contain spaces between paragraphs, but in an email, the lack of spaces can get confusing. So in the bad old days, I’d copy and paste the text block, then go through paragraph by paragraph to hit Return and insert a blank line after each one. Painful.

Later, I automated this with a custom service in my menubar that searched the text and replaced one carriage return with two. It worked, but required quite a few clicks and maneuverings to get what I wanted.

Yesterday I had the bright idea of using Typinator to make this easier. This powerful little app is a text expander in which abbreviations are instantly expanded into words, pictures, snippets of text, URLs — whatever you can think up. For instance, I write my email address by simply typing “oe” (short for Oregon Expat).

Typinator also uses Regex — a type of programming that could easily accomplish what my previous service did. All I needed was the exact command string.

I’d like to say that I quickly figured it out, but the truth is that I studied Regex tutorials for about two hours, then studied the Typinator Help documentation, and then threw my hands in the air and emailed the developer.

He emailed back within hours. The solution was dead simple:

Typinator solution

This takes the contents of the clipboard, searches it for single carriage returns after text (i.e. the search excludes blank lines), replaces them with double carriage returns, and then pastes the result.

So now my workflow consists of copying the text, placing my cursor in the email, and typing “=v.” (Easy to remember since the keyboard shortcut for pasting is Command+V.)

Magic. This is why I love tech.

 

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Chronicles of Alsea: Book SEVEN

It’s been an awful week for my American friends and family — and for me as well, watching from afar and feeling like a refugee. Words of encouragement don’t seem to mean much in the face of such deeply entrenched, powerful indifference to the needs or beliefs of the majority of the nation.

I can offer this, though: a small thing to look forward to, a book into which you can escape for a precious few hours.

Resilience, the sequel to Outcaste, is being released on Halloween. Appropriate, since it features some decidedly non-humanoid aliens.

RESILIENCE blog size

Resilience is the story of Rahel Sayana’s first patrol on the Phoenix, and a fast-paced tale that will pull you along from start to finish.

As the first empath on the crew, Rahel has an uphill battle from the beginning, and that’s not taking into account the cultural differences. But Lhyn Rivers is there to guide her, and Captain Serrado is making sure her senior officers help where they can.

Their plans for a careful, structured training go by the wayside when the Phoenix runs into a mystery: a cargo ship with a dead crew and signs of unwanted life.

Rahel may be new to Fleet and space travel, but her instincts and skills have always been about protection. With the Phoenix under quarantine and unseen aliens on the loose, she will do what she has always done. She will stand between danger and those who need her, no matter the risk.

Take your mind out for an adventure on Halloween — you’ll find Resilience in all the usual stores.

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Sonic booms

An observation from a reader sent me on a search for a good photograph of a sonic boom, and inevitably, I ended up chasing facts and cool tidbits down a few rabbit holes.

First cool tidbit: Sonic booms are created by shock waves, and those shock waves were first photographed in 1888 by Ernst Mach, who was studying the pressure waves produced by bullets traveling at supersonic speeds.

Mach bullet

What he discovered was that there are two pressure waves, one at the front of the projectile and one at the back. Stanford University has a great write-up about these famous photos and the technique used to produce them.

(Mach’s research produced the equation that immortalized his name: a Mach number is the ratio of the speed of a traveling object to the speed of sound in the medium through which that object is traveling.)

The bullets create those shock waves by shoving molecules aside with the force of their passage, much the way a ship creates a wake as it moves through water. The bigger and heavier a traveling object is, the bigger the shock waves it produces.

Which brings us to the shock waves we all know about: sonic booms.

NASA has a spiffy little fact sheet on sonic booms, offering this succinct explanation:

The shock wave forms a “cone” of pressurized or built-up air molecules, which move outward and rearward in all directions and extend all the way to the ground. As this cone spreads across the landscape along the flight path, it creates a continuous sonic boom along the full width of the cone’s base. The sharp release of pressure, after the buildup by the shock wave, is heard as the sonic boom.

The change in air pressure associated with a sonic boom is only a few pounds per square foot — about the same pressure change experienced riding an elevator down two or three floors. It is the rate of change, the sudden changing of the pressure, which makes the sonic boom audible.

The closer the source of the cone, the louder the boom. As the cone travels farther down through the air, it widens and weakens, so the boom created by a high-flying supersonic aircraft won’t be perceived as loud on the ground, while a boom from the same aircraft screaming by 500 feet overhead will knock your socks off.

(Seriously, check out that fact sheet. Especially the part about overpressure.)

Back to those bullet photos up above. Remember the two pressure waves? Those form on jets, space shuttles, and rockets, too. So they all create double sonic booms, but we often hear the two booms as a single sound because they’re so close together. For instance, a supersonic fighter jet 50 feet long will generate nose and tail shock waves that are about one-tenth of a second apart. We can’t hear that difference. But the Space Shuttles, famous for their double booms, were 122 feet long. That meant their nose and tail shock waves were about a half-second apart, and that is distinguishable to our ears.

Though the Space Shuttles are retired, sonic booms have returned to Florida’s Space Coast with the advent of SpaceX and their rocket launches, with one spectacular difference: the SpaceX rockets produce triple booms as they land. That’s because of their shape. As explained in Space Flight Insider:

“[The] first boom is from the aft end (engines),” said John Taylor, SpaceX’s Communications Director. “[The] second boom is from the landing legs at the widest point going up the side of the rocket. [The] third boom is from the fins near the forward end.”

Want to hear that? Check out this video. I’ve cued it to just before the booms, but you really should watch the whole thing, with headphones on, because it is super cool.


Now for a bit of urban mythbusting. You’ve probably seen this photograph, which was taken by Ensign John Gay of the US Navy in July 1999:

Navy not boom

This is not a sonic boom, though practically every site/blog/article that has ever featured it claimed it was. It’s actually a phenomenon called flow-induced vaporization. Atlas Obscura has a wonderful article on when and how this photo was taken, how shocked Ensign Gay was to return from his tour at sea to learn that the photo had become world famous, and what he really photographed.

I did, however, find a great photo of an actual sonic boom produced by a jet. It will look very familiar to you:

Supersonic jumbo

It’s been more than a century since Ernst Mach took those images of the bullets, but the technique used for this jet photo is exactly the same. The New York Times has a write-up on how it was produced. For most people, it wouldn’t have the visual punch of the wrongly-labeled photo by Ensign Gay. But having been down the various rabbit holes, we know what this image is actually showing, and that what Mach did in 1888 with a bullet is the exact same thing a NASA scientist did in 2015 with a supersonic jet.

And that is cool.

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Brexit view from the continent

Yesterday, the papers were full of news of Teresa May’s fruitless attempt to break the negotiating stance of the EU regarding Brexit. Or at least, the UK papers were full of that news. Continental papers, not so much. It was a fascinating real-time example of the wildly divergent view that different people, cultures, and governments can have of the same event.

When the Brexit vote hit in June 2016, it was front page news everywhere in Europe. It continued to be front page news as the ramifications were explored and as the UK invoked Article 50, which activated an unstoppable two-year clock.

With the clock now counting down the final months, the UK continues to be consumed with Brexit, both in its government and its news coverage. Over here on the continent, however, interest in Brexit has declined on a daily basis. The EU has plenty of things to be concerned about: the migration issue, Italy’s financial stability, the alarming assault on democratic norms in Hungary and Poland. And of course, every country has its own internal concerns. Brexit is considered regrettable and costly, but it is not by any means the top news, and hasn’t been for a long time.

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has fought a running battle in her own cabinet between hard Brexiteers who crave no deal at all (also called “crashing out”) and the moderates who are horrified at the towering economic, environmental, and social costs of that. Her solution was a proposal called Chequers, which made absolutely no one happy — not the hardliners, not the moderates, and not the EU negotiator, whose stance has been unchanged since this whole thing started. So the process has been something like this:

EU: We will not accept a deal that alters A, B, C, or D, any of which would undermine the integrity of our union. We will negotiate on the other items.

UK: We want to change A and B.

EU: No. A, B, C, and D are non-negotiable.

UK: What if we only change A and B a little bit?

EU: A, B, C, and D are non-negotiable.

UK: Okay, here’s this deal called Chequers. It changes A and B, but you really need to give us some political cover here.

EU: A, B, C, and D are non-negotiable.

That last bit occurred Thursday, when Theresa May went to an EU summit in Salzburg to present her Chequers plan. The EU negotiator had already dismissed the plan as unworkable months earlier, practically the day after it came out. Everyone has known the EU would not accept it.

The EU did not accept it.

The following day, the UK news was full of the “ambush” at Salzburg, saying Theresa May was “blindsided,” “humiliated,” and other choice descriptive phrases. It’s as if no one could have possibly predicted such an outcome. Except that over here on the continent, everyone predicted that outcome. How can that be an “ambush”?

Here, then, is an illustration of different views of the same event. First, a pro-Brexit British tabloid called The Sun:

Sun paper

The tommy guns are a nice touch, as is the subheader: “We can’t wait to shake ourselves free of the two-bit mobsters who run the European Union.”

The Times was more sober, but still apparently astonished:

Times Brexit

The Guardian has a roundup of all the UK front pages on Friday. They’re all along the same theme.

Meanwhile, here is the front page of one of Portugal’s largest newspapers:

Publico Brexit

The prime photo real estate goes to Portugal’s president, who was a professor of law before taking office. He was teaching one final class.

Over on the right is the news about Salzburg. The headline is: “EU says to May that her plan for Brexit is unacceptable.” And right below that is the headline, “Should it be legal? Debate joins ex-prostitutes in Lisbon.”

As you can see, it wasn’t big news.

Posted in Europe, politics | 2 Comments

“Portugal is not the USA”

I’m guessing this was not trumpeted all over the US news, but the President of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, met with Trump at the White House last week.

The meeting started off with a handshake. It’s clear from this video that Marcelo had undergone diplomatic training in how to deal with Trump’s infamous “grab and pull” handshake-disguised-as-dick-waving.

It seems the training went well.

This isn’t what made the Portuguese headlines, however. The big news here was Trump’s attempt at a joke and Marcelo’s withering reply.

It started when Marcelo commented that if Trump was going to be in Russia to meet Putin, he should attend the World Cup, where the greatest footballer in the world was playing.

Trump joked, “Could Cristiano run against you [for president]?”

“He wouldn’t win,” Marcelo replied instantly. “Portugal is not the US; it’s a little different.”

The Portuguese loved this. Because it’s true. Cristiano Ronaldo might be the most famous person in Portugal (and surely one of the wealthiest), but the Portuguese are not swayed by fame or wealth in their elections.

Not to mention that these days, most citizens of Europe are looking across the pond in utter horror. Having our president affirm that Portugal isn’t the US was a point of civic pride.

The exchange made headlines the next day:

Publico Marcelo

Here’s another Marcelo story that I’m sure no one outside Portugal has heard: on his first day as President, he walked to work. He happened to live near the Palácio Belém (the Portuguese version of the White House), so why not?

No, Portugal is not the US. It’s a little different.

Posted in politics, Portugal, USA | 13 Comments